Posted by: Robin Koontz | January 10, 2019

Nature-Inspired Writing Innovations

As a kid, I was happiest poking around in nature. My mom had created a huge rock garden using native plants that she found (stole) in the surrounding Hammond Woods. By the time I was growing up, her garden was about all that was left of many of the plants that had grown wild before the area was developed into a suburb of D.C. My friends and I used to hunker down in her little woodland and pretend we were surviving in the wilderness. In later years, we camped all summer in the Appalachian Ridge of West Virginia. As an anxiety-ridden pimply-faced teenager, I often preferred walking or riding my horse in the woods to any kind of social life. Like the song says, it was almost heaven.


So, even though I grew up thinking all I wanted to do with my life was “art,” I continued to be fascinated by nature and animals. When illustration work pretty much dried up for me a few years ago, I started writing about my favorite subjects. My first series was called Amazing Animal Skills, and one of the books was an Animal Behavior Society Outstanding Children’s Book Award Finalist. That honor encouraged me to keep on writing science and nature books! I also became fascinated with engineering, which I’m pretty sure would have surprised my engineer father (girls don’t do engineering). When I read about how Velcro® was invented, I researched and wrote a book about biomimicry, which is all about how nature inspires human engineering.

In time, that book became six books, and was published in 2018 by Rourke Educational Media. Here are the six titles and a nice review from School Library Journal:

Gr 4–8 — “Readers can enjoy an in-depth exploration of such topics as artificial hearts inspired by a jellyfish, jet engines modeled on the nostrils of peregrine falcons, and a stadium that mimics a bird’s nest. Photos of each of these innovations are large and detailed, while the text is concise and presented in easily digestible chunks. Diagrams offer additional information about how echolocation is adapted for canes used by those with vision impairments or how buildings use ventilation modeled on termite mounds. …VERDICT: Highly recommended for general science or STEAM programs, this series features the latest designs in multiple fields from around the world. — School Library Journal 11/01/2018

You can buy the books right here on Rourke Educational Media’s site, sold separately or as a complete series. You can also find them on Barnes&Noble and Amazon. I created a book trailer for it, which you can see here.



Posted by: Robin Koontz | January 1, 2019

Seven Years of Mostly Good Memories

2019 marks seven years since I stepped down as the SCBWI Oregon Regional Advisor, a volunteer job I held for 18 years. Today I let go the records I was entrusted with to keep for seven years (IRS requirements). It all went up in smoke in the paper bonfire we set almost every New Year’s Day. Nothing toxic, and damp cold weather meant no danger of fire spreading to where we didn’t want it. It’s always a fun way to spend a cold afternoon in January.


Seeing that old paperwork crinkle and blacken brought back a lot of sweet memories. They were mostly about our yearly retreat at Silver Falls. When I saw the retreat mascots designed by Carolyn being tossed into the fire, I rescued one copy to keep as a memory. I also kept the last bank statement when I turned over a very healthy treasury to the incoming Regional Advisors. The year before had been our first bad year in two decades, and we weren’t the only region that suffered low attendance and lost revenue as a result of the recession.

The last yearly conference I was involved with (I shared the massive task with several others) was one of the most difficult times of my life. I had announced my retirement a few months earlier, and it was like the earth shifted. There was even a big pre-conference event planned about what to do now, and I was not invited…which was pretty weird but understandable. I hung out with our guest editors and agents and tried to explain what was going on. And frankly, that was really weird.

I went through the weekend, accepting congratulations and appreciation as best I could, yet escaping to my hotel room often to collapse. My blood pressure was at crisis levels, and at one point I almost had my roommate call 911 but changed my mind. I didn’t want a scene. I still remember the sensation of almost fainting several times while speakers spoke and attendees chattered. I couldn’t wait for it to be over.

When I handed over boxes and boxes of stuff to the incoming leaders at the end of the weekend, I started to feel better. When I got in my car and began the 125 mile trek back home, I felt relieved. I had been so ignorant of how people could try to destroy another person, but that spring, I got a dandy reminder which led to my retirement. Bullies had the same effect on me when I was in 8th grade, only now I was an adult with hypertension. I thought I was strong and could deal with it, but it almost killed me.

As I drove, I worked on a new picture book called NO MEANIES ALLOWED. It made me laugh for the first time in a long time. I still have hypertension, but have learned to steer clear of situations like this. I did my time, and I’m proud of the work we did. The end. Expletives deleted. 🙂

So today, it was nice to see those few bad memories burn away. It was extra nice to be reminded of the many friends I still have from those days. By the way, I haven’t talked about this in public until now. It’s part of my effort to finally let it go. Thanks for listening. And may we all endeavor to persevere.


Posted by: Robin Koontz | October 24, 2018

Building a Wood-Framed Panelized Yurt: the book


We have a book! Actually, we have two books. Links to purchase them are below. Color printing costs were high on a 176 page book, so we also published a black and white version. The price is about 40% less than the color version, and the photos are clear enough to illustrate the task at hand.


Here are the links:

Building a Wood-Framed Panelized Yurt, in color

Building a Wood-Framed Panelized Yurt, black & white



Posted by: Robin Koontz | August 20, 2018

Keeping busy during the off-season.

This summer I had two book projects to complete for Rourke Educational Media, then as often happens in summer, that was it until fall work comes in. But it ain’t quittin’ time!

The writing life can be sporadic when it comes to paying work, but that doesn’t mean writers should just stop writing. If we keep working at our craft, our work is bound  to improve. I always have a list of projects to work on for a few hours each day. This summer, I researched and wrote a new 6-book series proposal, revised a picture book, started on a new picture book, submitted projects, and continued with a new self-publishing venture which I’ve been working on for a little over a year. Here it is:


I’ve been posting about this project on my other blog, WildCat Man, where I chronicle the many projects of my partner of 41 years, Marvin Denmark. I’ve written twelve Instructables about his projects along with a few of mine. It’s a great writing exercise, and they have contests (we’ve won two so far). Here’s the latest: Building a Wood-Framed Panelized Yurt. Please vote for it if you feel so inclined, thanks very much. *UPDATE: We won first prize!*

Meanwhile, the book is now 160 pages long, and still growing. I’ve taken hundreds of photos of the process and interviewed Marvin extensively (sometimes to his great frustration). The goal is to provide the reader with an easy-to-understand, well organized presentation of the start to finish of constructing the components and assembling a 12-sided wood-panelized yurt. Which, in case you wondered, is a dodecagon. I did not know that until I started on this book project.


I do help with the construction/assembly on many occasions when an extra hand or two are needed. It also helps me better understand what the heck I’m writing about.


And here are the Three Yaketeers: Marvin is in the middle with our neighbor on his right who will do just about anything for a beer. Jeep is our supervisor.

That’s all for now! I hope you all are enjoying what’s left of summer while keeping that butt in the chair for at least a couple hours a day. My motto: The weeds can wait.


Posted by: Robin Koontz | May 19, 2018

Farewell to our Matriarch

Carmel Pine Cone, May 18, 2018 (main news)My Aunt Louise, or Flo, aka Fanny Farkle, left the planet last month after breaking her hip and then developing an infection while in the hospital. We’re all very sad to lose her at the ripe old age of 96, but at least she kept her sense of humor until the end. One of the last things she said to the doctor was, “I’m ready to get off this bus.” R.I.P. Auntie! I’ll miss our bi-weekly phone conversations. Who will I argue with now?


Posted by: Robin Koontz | February 28, 2018

When to give up on a story.


Writers love their stories. It can be a love-hate thing throughout the writing process, but when a writer reaches the end and declares the story is done, they are hopelessly in love with it. Does anyone remember the intro scene from Romancing the Stone, when the sobbing Joan Wilder types in the final scene in her latest novel and all her tissue boxes in the house are empty, and she says, “This is SO GOOD?” That’s me. I really love my story when it’s done. It’s a serious story crush, and I am oblivious to its flaws or potential problems down the road.

At the beginning of my career I was over-confident at that giddy moment, and learned hard lessons. I soon stopped immediately sending my story out to an editor thinking they too, will run out of tissues because it was SO GOOD. I’ve learned to move on and come back to it later. And every time, even within a couple of days, I see lots of flaws, and start revising.

This goes on for varying amounts of time depending on the story. Eventually I will send it out to expert eyes for a critique or two. And then revise again. Finally I love the story even more than before. It’s no longer that first romance crush thrill with all the tears and tissues. Now this story and I are in a serious relationship, and I am committed to it for life. And it’s time to take the relationship to the next level: trust the story enough to send it out to the world.

During this often very long process, sometimes an agent or editor agrees that they will look at it again if we make certain changes. The thought of revising again after all the work we’ve put into a story can be excruciating. But we remember our solemn vow to love this story forever, and we revise it again. It can be very tough on a relationship. Rejection challenges our faith. Therapy is almost always required. But we stick with our beloved even as it changes and often grows into something we barely recognize. And, like a long-term relationship that goes through rocky times, love prevails.

One possibility is the story sells and we live happily ever after. But there is also the other possibility. What about a story that has been through it all with us? It has been revised countless times. Perhaps it made it to more than one interested editor’s desk, even to an acquisitions meeting or two! But alas, as we waited patiently, fantasizing about the award speeches we’d need to write (don’t tell me you never do this), our story was ultimately rejected. And now, our beloved has made the rounds to all of the possible markets, and has not sold. An agent will say it’s time to let it go, and after a lot of tears, we know she’s right. Sigh.

There are probably just three options:

1. Table it. A lot of successful authors have put a story or idea aside and revisited it later, sometimes years later, and sold it. That’s happened to me more than once, I’m happy to report. And sometimes, a story turns out to be just a story seed that needed to grow in a different climate to really flourish. A new story is born.

2. Self-publish it. If you choose the self-publishing route, do make sure you have a marketing plan and that your book is professionally edited and produced. Unless you are using a pseudonym, your name as an author is on the line. And while a lot of wonderful stories are rejected, a lot more not-so-wonderful stories are rejected as well or more often, have never even sat on an editor’s desk. Your book will be competing with a huge slush-pile and it will have to stand out. Do your research and honor your story.

3. Let it go. Kiss your story goodbye and call it quits. It’s like a friendly but nevertheless sad divorce. You will always love each other, but it’s never going to work. It’s time to move on.

While I have always chosen option 1, recently, I chose option 3. I gave up a story that was dear to my heart, called Lucy’s Little Church. I’ve never received so many beautiful editorial comments on a single manuscript that was not accepted for publication. So, since a descendant of the founders of the church that inspired the story also loved it, I gave Lucy’s Little Church to her. She had mentioned, after reading it, that she would love to have that opportunity, and I was humbled and flattered. Here is some of what she wrote when I released the rights to her a few months ago:

“We may never see each other face to face but we will always share Lucy’s experiences at Glendale Chapel. She may get a new name, Annie, for my sister who fell in the creek, Annie my mother, and Annie Shields who brought Glendale Chapel back to life.”

11986978_10207760295675214_5107976400581954905_nSo this time, I didn’t so much as give up on a story, I feel that I gave the story to its proper owner. I hope to see it come to life someday.



Posted by: Robin Koontz | January 11, 2018

Changing with the times – how I stayed published.

This piece is from the May 2006 issue of our local electrical coop’s Ruralite Magazine. I interviewed myself actually, and was very easy to talk to. I also took the photos, hence the cut off head. The gist of the interview was how we creative types struggle in our careers. Getting published doesn’t mean we’ll stay published, for instance. Keeping up with the changing, often fickle market is a must. So is keeping doors open and networking either via conferences or online contacts. And perhaps most importantly, for me anyway, is determined willingness to try something new and possibly fail. For example, the last book mentioned that was scheduled never happened. That editor was laid off and the project was cancelled.

To note, I was also sort of slyly advertising our upcoming SCBWI Oregon spring conference. It’s a lot easier these days to get the word out at no cost, thanks to the internet, but we had to be pretty creative to get free publicity back in the dinosaur age!

c-17 pp 4-5 May.inddc-17 pp 4-5 May.indd

Posted by: Robin Koontz | January 7, 2018

Families torn by a mean regime.

snowcreekMy 96-year old aunt has been a dyed-in-the wool Republican for as long as she knew there was a choice. She worked for the party when she was young, and after retiring, she volunteered for them again.

My aunt’s incredible knowledge and recall of American history can make it interesting to talk politics with her, even though we’re polar on most things. We often reach an impasse and change the subject, but nobody was ever mean or disrespectful of the other’s opinions.

While my aunt was not real keen on the 2016 Republican candidate for president, she is embracing him now. No surprise there. But something new has happened. Recently, our weekly conversations had her prefacing with, “Excuse me if I’m being *politically incorrect* but…” and I could feel the sarcasm that was not there before. The story was usually disagreeing with whatever us “liberal snowflakes” had our panties in a bunch about. Recently I finally told her that she’s not being politically incorrect, she’s being mean and disrespectful of things people feel very strongly about (civil rights, the ME TOO movement, etc.). She said, “I’m sorrrrrreeeee if I oh-FENDed you,”  and promptly sent me a letter defining the words political and correct in her defense.

My aunt is a kind woman. She has always looked out for her family and has been there for all of us in her world. It finally dawned on me today that this woman, who has always stuck to her beloved party, is starting to parrot the infectious vitriol that Trump introduced to the limelight and has made acceptable. And she doesn’t realize it.

Trump and his supporters at FOX are encouraging the very worst in people and showcasing it as some kind of justified retaliatory movement against the “liberal crybabies.” I hate that my aunt is letting that rub off on her just because she’s a follower of the party. It makes it difficult to talk to her. and I know families all over the country are in a similar boat. It’s depressing, isn’t it?

So, here’s what I sent to my aunt, as a definition of a liberal. It’s a lovely piece I saw on social media, without an attribution:

I am not a liberal snowflake.
My feelings aren’t fragile; my heart isn’t bleeding.
I am a badass believer in human rights.
My toughness is in tenderness.
My strength is in the service of others.
There is nothing more fierce than formidable, unconditional love.
There is not a thing more courageous than compassion.
But if my belief in equity, empathy, goodness, and love indeed makes me or people like me snowflakes, then you should know: Winter is coming.


Posted by: Robin Koontz | November 15, 2017

DIY Picture Book Query Letters


Illustration from Samuel’s Garden, 1981

When it comes to picture book submissions, editors and agents nearly always ask for the entire text. For novels and nonfiction, they generally ask for a synopsis, the first three chapters, and/or a proposal and outline. It’s a no-brainer that one should write a query for novels or nonfiction to get the prospective publisher interested enough to want to read more. But a lot of people skip writing a query for a picture book, because after all, a picture book is so short!

Or it should be. Most picture books published in recent years tend to be well under 1,000 words. The illustration above is from my first picture book, which was about 2,500 words. The query letter, which I’ve since trashed, was a hand-lettered, photocopied “Dear Editor” monstrosity. Believe it or not, I sold the story, but the publisher (Delair) went belly-up before the book ever saw the light of day. And that’s probably a good thing.

But anyway, a query is needed for a picture book unless the guidelines state otherwise. You are querying the reader to see if she wants to read your story, so obviously a query is actually a pitch, like the teaser on the book jacket which is the lure to get someone to buy and read the book. A lot of writers find that a query for a picture book is far more difficult to write than one for a novel or nonfiction. I’ve done all of them, and agree.

So I decided to dig up the query letters for my recent picture books and share them here. One of the books sold, and the rest are making the rounds. A couple of them had input from my amazing agent, Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary.

Merilee Wiser, Master Advisor loves to give helpful advice to everyone. But Ziggy, Charlie and Trevor don’t think she can solve a real problem, like building a clubhouse. Merilee proves them wrong of course. But when the clubhouse is done, they will not let her inside because she is a girl. Her solution to that problem offers the best advice of all.

In Aneesa, Go Outside!, Aneesa is not happy about the strange sights, sounds, and smells she encounters at her new home in the city, and she misses the natural beauty of the home she sadly left behind. Nanni does her best to coax Aneesa into going outside with her to explore, but Aneesa will have nothing of it. When Nanni gives Aneesa a pot of soil and a seed so she can have her outside inside, the seed also burrows inside Aneesa’s heart and sprouts a tiny glimpse of hope for her.

Autumn Spawn follows a single salmon’s historical life journey from stream to ocean and then back to her ancestral spawning grounds, where she lays her eggs and soon dies. Her amazing quest is much like all species of Salmoniformes in the world whose populations have drastically declined in the last century. Autumn Spawn is a story of relentless survival that has evolved over millions of years.

Onomatopoeia is a popular and fun way to describe and remember bird sounds. In Chirp!, Mia Louise interprets a variety of bird voices that she hears on her walk. But suddenly the music stops: one bird has a problem. Once the problem is solved, the symphony resumes.

BUG! is a quirky little girl who loves bugs, loves to draw, but hates math. When challenged to pass the big math test, Bug finds a unique and clever way to finally understand math concepts. And bugs have something to do with it. All goes well, at first. This humorous, character-driven story will show children who struggle that there are many ways to get to the correct answer, and it will encourage them to use their own imaginations to find the solutions.

These pitches are not perfect by any means, but my goal is to succinctly describe the story and provide a hook to encourage the editor to want to read it. I hope these examples give you some ideas for your picture book query.

Be sure to check out my books, many of which you can find at Rourke Educational Media. A complete publications list is on my wiki page.

And, stay tuned for the spring 2019 publication of BUG! to be illustrated by Amy Proud and published by Sterling Children’s.

Posted by: Robin Koontz | September 10, 2017

Sock-sock-shoe-shoe? or sock-shoe-sock-shoe?

I had this discussion recently with a Millennial, who felt that the first option was the only answer that made any sense whatsoever, and, he didn’t want to hear any discussion about the alternative. The discussion recalled a hilarious scene in one of the best sitcoms ever made, All in the Family, which aired in the early 1970s:

For those who don’t know, Archie Bunker was very set in his pretty rigid conservative ways and thought anyone who disagreed with him was a knucklehead. But his liberal daughter and her radical husband (who Archie called Meathead) often showed him the other side of things.

Many of the issues raised in this 30-minute groundbreaking show – such as race, homosexuality and war – reached a wide and diverse audience via humor, and I do think opened a lot of minds. We eventually learned that Archie was a kind, big-hearted man who was brought up a certain way, was taught to believe certain things, but wasn’t completely closed to alternative ways of looking at the world. Even in this ridiculous sock-shoe discussion, Meathead finally concedes that Archie has a point while Archie seems to bend a bit as well.

So anyway, as a former sock-sock-shoe-shoe, I’m now a sock-shoe-sock-shoe. For me, there were too many good reasons to just deal with one freaking foot at a time. For instance, when drying off feet after hanging out in a creek, what would someone do with a foot in a sock while they put the other foot in a sock? Never mind, Archie and Meathead already explained it all.


By the way, my newest picture book, BUG!, is about a little girl who can’t figure out math concepts. Like most kids in school, Bug is being taught math in a certain way, and all the kids are expected to understand it. But poor Bug just doesn’t get it. Happily, she stumbles upon a unique way she could use to finally understand math! Her method of learning math leads to the correct answer, so who cares? She got her socks and shoes on, and that’s all that matters.

BUG! is being published by Sterling Children’s Books, will be illustrated by Amy Proud, and is scheduled for Spring 2019.


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